New York

David Hannah

Ruth Siegel

Is it possible to compose a convincing, painterly abstract realm that incorporates figuration, landscape, and spatiality? Can these elements be used to evoke psychological dramas? David Hannah’s paintings not only raise these questions but answer them very differently than the work of, say, Gregory Amenoff, Louise Fishman, or Bill Jensen. In contrast to these artists, Hannah is more concerned with the possibilities of figuration. Abstract torsos made up largely of elongated lozenge and oval shapes hover in a landscape or roomlike realm, where the complex, often contradictory mood is determined as much by the various kinds of brushwork and color as by the relationship of geometric and biomorphic shapes to linear elements.

Reading the ovals synecdochically as figural presences is a key to interpreting the rest of the painting. Initially, we try to translate every shape into something familiar, such as figures, trees, sky, and hills; however, translation as a way of reading doesn’t lead far enough. Inevitably, there are shapes, relationships, and colors that do not translate into the familiar. At this point, we begin analyzing the web of relationships. Hannah doesn’t abstract from the world. The paintings are not equivalents for picturesque scenes. Instead, he has created a slowly expanding lexicon of images that evoke both the visible and interior worlds, a visual language that obliquely alludes to intense human dramas.

The biomorphic torsos are usually limbless and static, suggesting a powerless witness. What are they witnessing? What is going on between them when two are present? These are some of the questions the viewer asks without coming to a final conclusion. And yet, it is also possible to intuit a function for each element without necessarily being able to name it. Consequently, the shapes must be read as forces of energy deployed within the continuum of the painting.

Hothouse pinks, moody sunset reds, deep sky blues, cool evening violets, lush greens, sooty yellows, pinkish grays—it is Hannah’s brash, emotional palette that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. Another artist who uses color this boldly is Elizabeth Murray. Both also mingle crude drawing with a feathery gestural touch, and juxtapose heavily reworked surfaces with thinly painted, scumbled areas. These affinities arise out of a shared attitude. For both artists, the allusive power of the work is always the result of a belief in the hand-painted surface. But in Hannah’s work, the use of figural elements enmeshed in a kind of painterly underbrush conveys a sense of tragicomic helplessness that is compelling and almost witty.

John Yau